|Neither Mike Tomlin, nor Mike McCarthy were popular hires at the time they were brought in.|
I was recently in New York City talking with Bob Boland, the head of sports management at New York University, and he made an interesting observation about the owners of the teams going to the Super Bowl. He pointed out this game features one team without a single owner (Green Bay), and the other (Pittsburgh) with an old-guard owner.
The Packers hired Vince Lombardi in 1959 and the Steelers hired Chuck Noll in 1969. Once those head-coaching hires were made, both organizations blossomed and stayed with the formula that made them successful.
In 2006, the Green Bay Packers were in the market for a new head coach. General manager Ted Thompson had fired Mike Sherman after his team went 4-12 and began his search. He was looking for an offensive-minded coach, one who could lead the team and develop the offense. Thompson was not working with a normal list of top offensive coordinators, as he was looking for someone who would coach the team and understand how the Packers do business. He was not interested in winning the press conference, he was interested in hiring the right man for the situation.
In 2007, the Pittsburgh Steelers were surprisingly in the market for a new coach. The Steelers normally never look for a new coach, but Bill Cowher had decided to walk away from the game and spend more time with his family. Cowher was one year removed from winning the Super Bowl and the time seemed right for his departure. The Steelers then began their search with two top in-house candidates: Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, both popular and seemingly well-qualified options. But typical of the Steelers, they were not interested in winning the press conference, they were interested in finding the right man to lead their team.
It would have been easy for the Packers to try and hire Brad Childress, the hot candidate in 2006, or for the Steelers to just promote either Whisenhunt or Grimm. But the path of least resistance is not what these two teams have in mind when they make critical decisions. They were not fearful of a negative reaction to their hires, because they have confidence in their judgment.
Consider the Packers' hiring of McCarthy. In 2005, he was in his first year as the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, after spending five seasons in the same position with the New Orleans Saints. In his lone season in San Francisco, the offense was devastated by injuries and the 49ers finished last in yards and 30th in points. This was hardly the production to put McCarthy on other teams' head-coaching list.
But what helped McCarthy catch Thompson's interest was the one season he spent with the Packers in 1999, as their quarterback coach. Thompson was able to observe his teaching style that year and learn about his leadership skills first-hand. His lack of production as the coordinator in San Francisco was not a concern, nor was it a worry that none of the other 10 teams with openings had McCarthy on their radar. Thompson had no interest in who other teams deemed to be the "hot" candidate.
The Steelers are led by owner Dan Rooney. He is the architect of the "Rooney Rule," which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs. Despite that, most thought he would go with one of the two established coaches already on his staff. But that was before he met Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin is unique in everything he does. He was headed for Harvard or Penn, but family financial problems forced him to attend the College of William and Mary. He started out as a wide receiver coach, eventually working his way to being the defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati, where Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin noticed his talents. Kiffin has always had a sharp eye for coaching talent and recommended the Buccaneers hire Tomlin. When Kiffin gave his stamp of approval, Tomlin quickly got noticed around the league.
Former Buccaneers great Warren Sapp, who played with Tampa Bay when Tomlin was first hired, knew instantly that Tomlin was different than most coaches. Tomlin, according to Sapp, was his own man, coached in his own style and brought a great intellectual capacity to his craft. Before long, Tomlin's work was being recognized throughout the NFL.
Tomlin first came to my attention when I was working with the Raiders, and his agent Brian Levy told me to check him out. As I started to watch his work, I admired his ability to teach. Many people in the league assume that when a team runs a simple system, like the Buccaneers' Tampa 2, they are not being creative and, therefore, the coach is not well versed. But Tomlin was different. When he took the defensive coordinator job in Minnesota, his creative juices flowed and he showed he was more than just a Tampa 2 coach.
My favorite Tomlin story occurred prior to his first Super Bowl win. Running back Willie Parker came into his office to complain about not getting the ball and Tomlin told him that when he comes to work every day he stares at the franchise's five Super Bowl trophies, not rushing titles. He proceeded to explain that he couldn't care less about Parker's carries, he only cared about winning. This illustrates Tomlin's brilliance as a communicator. He has a powerful, descriptive message and his mind works quickly. Once he got the interview with the Steelers, it was obvious he would impress.
What makes this Super Bowl so unique is that both organizations ask their coach to play a role -- not do everything and be everything. Neither coach lets his ego get in the way of the team. They distinctly know their roles. Both are tough-minded and well-schooled in the strategies of the game, and are not afraid to be demanding of their teams.
These coaches will not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the game. Tomlin has been here before and McCarthy has dealt with adversity all season, overcoming numerous injuries to starters. Both have excellent coordinators that will have each unit ready for the start of the game and to make adjustments as the action unfolds. Tomlin and McCarthy will each have their team prepared to play well. Coaching and preparation won't decide this game -- the players on the field will.
I love this Super Bowl because, as Boland said, it features two organizations radically different in their approach to ownership, but remarkably similar in their approach to winning. The coaches are byproducts of each organization's approach and should serve as a valuable lesson for the best way teams can gain and, most importantly, maintain excellence.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.